Ellen Willis on Community and Long-Distance Bus Travel

The legendary Ellen Willis (first-ever pop critic for The New Yorker, feminist role model extraordinaire, etc.) passed away in 2006, but her work is enjoying a second renaissance thanks to The Essential Ellen Willis, a 2014 collection edited by her daughter Nona Willis Aronowitz. Earlier this month the National Book Critics Circle posthumously awarded Willis their top prize in criticism for the anthology. In honor of the honor, The Village Voice has reprinted “Escape from New York,” a fantastic Willis essay about loneliness, human connection, aging radicals and criss-crossing the country on a Greyhound bus. The essay first appeared as the Voice’s July 29, 1981 cover story, and has since been reprinted in The Essential Ellen Willis. 

For Americans, long-distances buses are the transportation of last resort. As most people see it, buses combine the comfort of a crowded jail cell with the glamour of a liverwurst sandwich. Though I can’t really refute that assessment, I don’t really share it, either. As a student with lots of time, little money, and no driver’s license, I often traveled by bus. Un-American as it may be, I feel nostalgic about those trips, even about their discomforts. In my no doubt idealized memory, discomfort was the cement that bound together an instant community of outsiders, people who for reasons of age, race, class, occupation (student, soldier), handicap, or bohemian poverty were marginal — at least for the time being — to a car-oriented culture.

It is this idea of community that moves me now. Lately I’ve been feeling isolated, spending too much time hiding out in my apartment, wrestling with abstract ideas. What better remedy than to take a bus trip, join the transportation-of-last-resort community, come back and write about what I’ve learned.

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